Friday, June 15, 2012

Risen indeed!

I’m going to comment on some of Bradley Bowen’s objections to the Resurrection. It’s a rambling, multipart series that lacks smooth transitions or consistent labels, so I’ll simply give a general link.

1. General Problems with the Gospels – including the Fourth Gospel
a. It was written by a Christian believer with the purpose of promoting Christian beliefs.
b. It was probably not written by an eyewitness.
c. It was composed decades after the crucifixion of Jesus.
d. It provides no attribution of specific stories or details to named and known eyewitnesses or sources.
e. It was written in Greek rather than Aramaic (the language Jesus and his disciples used).
f. It appears that the words and sayings of Jesus were preserved in oral traditions that failed to reliably preserve the original situations or contexts of those words and sayings, thus opening the door to misunderstanding, distortion, and corruption of the original meaning of Jesus’ words and teachings.

If a primary purpose of an author of an account of the life of Jesus is to promote Christian beliefs, such as the belief that Jesus was the divine Son of God, and the Savior of humankind, then that purpose introduces certain biases into the account.  Such an account will tend to select events that support this point of view and tend to exclude or downplay events that undermine or dis-confirm that point of view.  An author with such biases will tend to accept without question stories and details that support these beliefs, while tending to reject without good reason other stories and details that dis-confirm or cast doubt on those beliefs.

i) There’s nothing inherently suspect about people promoting what they believe. Bowen is promoting his own beliefs.

ii) If I make a wonderful discovery, I should share it with others. If John’s belief that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world is based on his personal discovery, he doesn’t begin with selective bias; rather, he begins with a direct encounter.

iii) Bowen is assuming that the author was choosing from hearsay traditions about Jesus. But that’s an assumption Bowan needs to defend, not assert. The narrator describes himself as an eyewitness. Bowen may deny that claim, but he needs to make some effort to understand the Fourth Gospel on its own terms.

It is important to recognize that eyewitness accounts are not completely reliable.  Physical evidence, such as fingerprints and DNA evidence, is becoming more important in criminal trails, because it has become increasingly clear that many innocent persons have been convicted of serious crimes, such as rape and murder, on the basis of erroneous eyewitness testimony.  This is also not merely a matter of dishonesty or deception on the part of alleged eyewitnesses, it is also a matter of the unreliability and corruptability of human memory.

Let’s compare that to some things that Bowen says about himself:

I was a devout Evangelical Christian from 1970 to 1982. The study of philosophy, especially philosophy of religion, led me to see that my Christian faith was founded on weak and faulty arguments.

Before I began to study philosophy in college, I already had a strong leaning towards an intellectually-oriented, even philosophical, Christian faith.

Notice that he’s describing events that go all the way back to when he was a teenager, beginning in 1970. He’s confident in his ability to remember things that happened to him 42 years ago.

Stobel [sic] seriously biases the second question by assuming a thirty-year gap between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels.  Mark is generally dated about 70 CE (forty years after Jesus' crucifixion), while Matthew and Luke are generally dated about 80 CE (fifty years after Jesus' crucifixion), and John is generally dated about 90 CE (sixty years after Jesus' crucifixion).

He’s simply asserting a liberal dating scheme He presents no supporting arguments, and he fails to engage the counterarguments.

In fairness to Bowen, there are places where he quotes scholars who agree with him. However, merely quoting a scholar’s opinion is a fallacious appeal to authority. We have to evaluate the scholar’s supporting arguments.

Matthew and Luke also include stories about Jesus' birth, so if we assume those Gospels to have been written around 80CE, they were written about eighty-five years after the event of Jesus' birth.  There is a story about Jesus as a child in Luke, so that story would have been written about seventy-five years after the event.

An elementary problem with this objection is that it fails to distinguish between the date of a gospel and the date of a gospel’s sources. If a gospel writer uses sources, then the sources predate the date of the gospel.

It is often argued that the Gospels are in agreement on major and general points, and only disagree on some of the details.  This may well be true (of the synoptic Gospels), but when it comes to the question of the crucifixion of Jesus and the claim that Jesus died on the cross the same day that he was crucified, the accuracy and reliability of the details becomes very important.

We have to guard against treating the chronology of the gospels in rigid fashion. What was the intent of the narrator? Did he intend to be exacting? Is he using approximations? And what about the role of symbolism? Linking certain events at certain times to evoke intertextual allusions? Is the timing always literal, or is it designed to trigger certain associations? Combine certain motifs?

In part, the Gospels are clearly examples of religious propaganda.  That is, they represent efforts to persuade people to adopt a Christian point of view and way of life.  They also were intended to serve as materials for the religious education of Christian believers, especially to preserve the Christian belief system for future generations which would not be able to learn directly from Jesus nor from his inner circle of disciples.

These purposes of the Gospel authors clearly introduce bias (or a significant potential for bias) into their accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus.  Jesus is not only a great teacher and prophet in the view of early Christians, but the Messiah and the savior of mankind.  Faith was not only to be placed in the teachings of Jesus, but also in the goodness and power of Jesus as savior who could bestow forgiveness and eternal life on those who follow him.

This overlooks an obvious consideration: If Jesus really was the Messiah, if Jesus really was the Redeemer, then gospel writers are not introducing bias into their accounts. In fact, Bowen’s characterization ironically betrays his own unconscious bias.

Would such authors be likely to doubt and reject third or fourth-hand stories about Jesus that supported these Christian beliefs about Jesus on the grounds that such stories would be of questionable reliability and accuracy?  Probably not.

Notice how he assumes, without benefit of argument, that the gospels accounts are based on third or fourth-hand information.

First of all, the authors of the Gospels were probably not eyewitnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus, nor to his crucifixion, nor to his resurrection appearances.  So, it is misleading for Strobel to speak of these writers as if they were eyewitnesses.

Why is that probably the case?

It is tempting to leave out embarrassing or hard to explain events and details.  So, if someone does so, then that reveals some degree of a lack of integrity and honesty in that person.

Because Strobel has a clear bias in favor of Christianity and the reliability of the Gospels, he wants to look for evidence that supports his religious convictions, and he is less interested in looking for evidence that would cast doubt on Christianity and on the Gospels.  Because that is the sort of evidence he is looking for, it is no surprise that that is the evidence he finds and publishes in his book, which was written for the purpose of persuading people to become Christians and followers of Jesus.  The temptation of confirmation bias is to look for evidence to support one's cherished beliefs but to fail to look for evidence that goes contrary to one's cherished beliefs.

To my knowledge, Strobel is a convert to the faith. He didn’t come to the NT with a receptive bias. Indeed, he had to overcome his prior bias as an unbeliever.

Strobel gives a few examples of instances in the Gospel of Mark that appear to be embarrassing or hard to explain: Mark 6:5 and Mark 13:32 present events that suggest that Jesus is less than omnipotent and less than omniscient, and thus suggest that Jesus is not God incarnate.
These verses are somewhat embarrassing to Trinitarian Christians, but it is not clear that they were embarrassing to the author of Mark, since it is not clear that the author of Mark believed Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity, or God incarnate.

i) There’s a distinction between the deity of Christ and the Trinity. Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Mark didn’t have a developed doctrine of the Trinity, that doesn’t mean he didn’t affirm the deity of Christ.

ii) And, in fact, Synoptic writers like Mark have a very high Christology. For instance:

iii) However, let’s take an example from John’s gospel, which undoubtedly has a high Christology. In Jn 7:6,10, Jesus apparently changes his mind. Some Christian scribes found this so embarrassing that they emended the text.

Furthermore, in ordinary cases of legal testimony, we often have many different sources of information to draw upon, in order to check whether a particular person's testimony leaves out some embarrassing events or details.  But in the case of the life, ministry, and crucifixion of Jesus, our sources are pretty much limited to the Gospels.

Needless to say, four Gospels represent different sources of information, not to mention other NT notices regarding the historical Jesus.

  So, it is more difficult in this case to find examples of leaving out events or details.  However, because Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a primary source of information about Jesus, we can look to see whether they leave out or modify events and details from Mark that they would consider embarrassing or hard to explain.  So, although we don't have much in the way of independent information about Jesus from outside the Gospels, we can look at how Matthew and Luke treat the information they had from the Gospel of Mark.

And when we compare them, what do we find? Matthew and Luke are both extremely conservative in their use of Mark.

However, in practice most of what the Gospels have to say about Jesus cannot be checked against other sources of information.  There are no video tapes of Jesus to watch; no photographs of Jesus, no tape recordings of Jesus, no newspaper stories or editorials about Jesus, no non-Christian biographies of Jesus or his disciples, no diaries of Jesus or his disciples, no lecture notes on his sermons, no court records of his trial, no video tapes or photos of his crucifixion, no autopsy report on his death, no death certificate, no video tapes or photos of his resurrection appearances, and so forth.

Several issues:

i) Modern recording technology creates new opportunities for fabricating or tapering with evidence.

ii) Bowen would bring the same knee-jerk scepticism to putative diaries, lecture notes, and newspaper stories.

If you want to know what Jesus taught, you have to read the Gospels.  If you want to know any details about Jesus' crucifixion and burial, you have to read the Gospels.  There is no non-Christian account of the crucifixion of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian account of the resurrection appearances of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian biography of Jesus.  There is no non-Christian report of the teachings of Jesus.

i) Notice the circular logic. In what sense would a non-Christian account of the resurrection appearances be non-Christian? If such an account attested the reality of the Resurrection, Bowen would simply reclassify that account as a Christian account rather than a non-Christian account. It’s like demanding a presidential biography of Lincoln by a historian who doesn’t believe Lincoln was ever president.

ii) Bowen has warned us that memory is unreliable. So if we had non-Christian accounts which attest the crucifixion, burial, and Resurrection of Christ, wouldn’t his fall back be to dismiss them as unreliable?

Or is he taking the position that memory is reliable in case it opposes the gospels, but unreliable in case it supports the gospels?

First of all, the Gospels were written decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, so memories would have faded and become distorted, and many of the eyewitnesses would have died off by the time the Gospels were written (and many more would have died off by the time the Gospels were duplicated and widely circulated). 

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the gospels were written decades after the fact. So what?

I have an elderly relative who’s been telling me the same anecdotes since I was a child. I’ve been hearing these stories for nearly 50 years now. And the stories never change. The details remain the same. She remembers something that happened to her when she was younger, and she repeats the same story year after years.

Indeed, this is why young people often find old folks tedious to listen to. Old folks keep telling the same stories, without variation. It’s the same story they told 5 years ago or 50 years ago.

Is Bowen so unobservant that he’s never noticed that common fact about elderly witnesses?  

Second, there were no printing presses, and no mass media, so it would take a while for the Gospels to be duplicated and to circulate to a wider audience.  Non-Christians in Palestine could not just go to the local newsstand or bookstore and pick up a paperback copy of the Gospels.  There were no critical reviews or editorials written about the Gospels in widely read magazines, newspapers, or journals.  There were no news programs or talk shows that would promote general discussion about the Gospels or the life of Jesus.  In short, the visibility and availability of the Gospels to non-Christians was fairly low for a significant period of time after the composition of the Gospels.

Fourth, most people in Palestine at the time the Gospels were written were illiterate.  Only a small percentage of the population could read the Gospels, so only a small percentage of the population was in a position to criticize the contents of the Gospels.

Since none of the Gospels was composed by an eyewitness to the trial, crucifixion, or burial of Jesus, and since the Gospels were apparently not based directly on eyewitness testimony, but were based on oral and written traditions of unknown origins (unknown to us), and since the Gospels were composed about four to six decades after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus, and since the primary motivation of the authors was to promote Christian faith (which includes the belief that Jesus was crucified), we cannot be certain that (JWC) is true. At best, we can conclude that it is very probable that (JWC) is true.

i) Notice the incoherence. On the one hand Bowen says we wouldn’t expect adverse witnesses to challenge the gospel accounts when the gospels were written so late.On the other hand, Bowen says Jesus traditions were disseminated orally long before they were committed to writing.

But in that case, adverse witnesses wouldn’t be dependant on written accounts to challenge the accuracy of the Christian narrative. They could rely on free-floating Jesus traditions which were circulated orally.

ii) The general level of literacy is irrelevant. For the contemporaries of Jesus and the NT writers who were most hostile to the Christian message were also among the most literate members of 1C Greco-Roman society. Their Jewish opponents were literate. Scribes. Pharisees. Sadducees. “Lawyers.” Members of the Sanhedrin. These people did read and write. 

iii) As a matter of fact, we do have recorded Jewish opposition to the Christian message outside the NT:

Third, with the possible exception of the Gospel of Mark, the Gospels were written after the Romans attacked and destroyed Jerusalem.  So, many of the Jews who were eyewitnesses of the ministry, teaching, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, were either killed or had left Jerusalem by the time the Gospels were written.

i) He keeps asserting this dating scheme, as if that’s a given.

ii) And even if you accept his dating scheme, that didn’t prevent the Talmud from opposing the gospels by presenting an alternative version of events.

1 comment:

  1. Well said Steve,

    I have addressed those "embarrassing" Marken passages here-

    And it is my understanding that Mark was in fact an eyewitness to the life and ministry of Jesus. That Mark composed and delivered his account within three years of Jesus death. And that the longer ending was delivered later in Marks ministry.